Ed Kilgore

When Rick Perry lays down his head on Saturday night, he’s going to be one tired Texan. By then, the consensus GOP front-runner will have endured a 48-hour gauntlet of events in Orlando, Florida, including a televised presidential candidates’ debate, an ideological beauty contest sponsored by the American Conservative Union, and a state party straw poll. Moreover, all this is occurring in a state that will hold a crucially timed 2012 primary, is considered a must-win for Republicans in the general election, and has demographic characteristics that could pose a real challenge to Perry.

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By the very nature of political journalism, the attention of those covering the 2012 Republican presidential nominating contest tends to be focused on areas of disagreement between the candidates, as well as on the policy positions and messages they are eager to use against Barack Obama. But there are a host of other issues where the Republican candidates are in too much agreement to create a lot of controversy during debates or gin up excitement in the popular media. Areas of agreement, after all, rarely provoke shock or drive readership.

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The fireworks-laden CNN/Tea Party Express Republican debate on Monday night didn’t much change the chattering class’s assessment of the candidates, with most pundits interpreting the pounding that Perry received as a confirmation of his dominance of the field. Because he was attacked from the “left” on Social Security and the “right” on immigration and his controversial HPV vaccination program, he’s being hailed as “the Man in the Middle,” which is where you want to be. This sanguine interpretation depends heavily on the assumption that the attacks on Perry somehow cancel each other out.

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Mitt Romney and Rick Perry’s exchange about Social Security during the last debate at the Reagan Presidential Library drew a lot of attention for various good reasons. It showed that Romney was willing to criticize Perry “from the left” on an important federal domestic program. It showed that Perry isn’t backing down on a radical approach to entitlement programs, at least for people who aren’t over or near the retirement age, and that he won’t directly retract his attacks on Social Security and Medicare as immoral and un-American.

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Since the last full-scale debate in Iowa, Perry’s entrance into the Republican nomination contest and rapid ascension in the polls has been remarkable. The last two national surveys of Republicans show him opening up a double-digit lead over Mitt Romney, and edging up into the high thirties overall. The latest poll from Iowa gives him a double-digit lead over Straw Poll winner Michele Bachmann. The latest poll from South Carolina shows him beating second-place candidate Romney by better than a two-to-one margin.

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At first glance, Labor Day weekend looks like it could be a lot of fun for Rick Perry and his fans. The odds of a Sarah Palin candidacy continue to shrink to irrelevance as she wrestles with incompetent local Tea Party organizers in Iowa over a long-planned appearance just outside Des Moines. Mitt Romney’s temporary triumph in securing top billing at a Tea Party Express event in New Hampshire, meanwhile, is being spoiled by protests from Dick Armey’s FreedomWorks organization.

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While few in either the mainstream media or the conservative commentariat have been so bold as to deny that the Republican Party is a lot more ideologically rigid than it was four or twelve or thirty years ago, there has been some regular pushback against attaching such terms as “radical” and “extremist” to the party’s views. Some conservatives like to claim that they just look extreme when compared to a Democratic Party dominated by a radical socialist president.

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In many respects, the “invisible primary” that precedes the formal delegate-selection phase of the 2012 Republican presidential nomination process has gone very well for Mitt Romney. Despite his status as the Establishment candidate, he has not become an unacceptable pariah to the ascendant Tea Party-Christian Right factions in the party and he has cruised through two televised debates without anyone laying a glove on him.

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Fifteen years ago this week, President Bill Clinton gave his controversial signature to landmark welfare reform legislation. The anniversary has not gotten a lot of attention, even though the program created to replace “welfare as we know it” in 1996 is up for reauthorization by September 30. A few conservatives have rehearsed their revisionist histories of the 1996 law, according to which Clinton was forced to sign a bill he had vetoed twice (which ignores the rather profound differences in the three measures).

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The sub-headline in Stephen Hayes’ latest Weekly Standard post trumpeting the possible emergence of a Paul Ryan presidential campaign lists some big political names who are encouraging the idea: “Mitch Daniels, Jeb Bush, John Boehner, Jim Jordan, and Bill Bennett encourage Ryan to run for president.” Hayes missed a few more big names who might well be equally excited about a Ryan run: Barack Obama, Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi, and Harry Reid.  Indeed, Democrats (especially those in Congress) have been plotting for months to make Paul Ryan’s budget proposal, and particularly its radical treatment

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